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Another vicarage — and its hazards — for a fortnight

by
17 July 2020

Ysenda Maxtone Graham, the author of a book about British childhood holidays in the mid- 20th century, recalls a peculiarity of clergy families’ summer arrangements

Alamy

For the holidaymakers who have got away from parish responsibilities, is a church noticeboard a matter of irresistible curiosity, a source of essential information . . . or just too much of a reminder of what they have temporarily escaped? “It’s not a holiday for me if I go to church,” says the Revd Catherine Lomas

For the holidaymakers who have got away from parish responsibilities, is a church noticeboard a matter of irresistible curiosity, a source of essentia...

THE frantic tidying! This was a phenomenon that I came across while researching my book on British childhood summers of the mid-20th century, British Summer Time Begins. Two vicars’ daughters I spoke to had done vicarage swaps in their 1970s childhoods. The deal was that you went to live in another person’s vicarage for a fortnight, and took over not only their house, but their whole job: services, baptisms, funerals, worry.

But mainly, Phoebe Fortescue (née Burridge) remembers, it was the tidying up of your own vicarage before leaving which made it stressful. Having left their own house spick and span, they travelled to the vicarage in Bexhill-on-Sea, and found that the vicarage there was “an absolute tip”. They came back to their own vicarage a fortnight later, and that was now an absolute tip as well. That was one of the hazards of the swapping system.

Once, they did a vicarage-swap in Maryland in the United States. “We thought we’d better upgrade our old banger to a slightly more respectable car for the visiting clergy family. On arrival in Maryland, we found we’d been provided with their old rust-bucket of a car to use, while their own expensive car was locked away in a garage.” But the locals were “incredibly friendly and hospitable” — which was not always the case. Expat Anglicans in Europe, where clergy did (and still do) summer chaplaincies, could be “moany, prickly, and defeatist”, as one person said to me, speaking from experience.

“And we always broke a butter-dish,” Phoebe said of her later (much happier) vicarage-swaps in Herne Bay. “We then spent the whole holiday searching the local shops for a replacement.” The broadcaster Eleanor Oldroyd recalled, “Vicarage-swapping wasn’t a proper rest for my father. He was just landed with all the other vicar’s problems.” They soon gave the habit up, and started going on camping holidays in France instead.

Those were the days when it was easy to swap working lives by mutual agreement, for a fortnight of the summer. It was a simple, cheap way for a clergy family to have a change, if not a rest. The odd thing was that you never met the other family, but you got to know them intimately through living in their house. Now that such exchanges are hedged round with insurance risk and safeguarding anxiety, they don’t happen as much; but Christian house-swaps do happen. Vivien Wills-Crisp, who runs swaps for Christian 200 homes on her website Chacs, tells me that her satisfied clientele (all certified churchgoers) can swap (say) their Oxford cottage for a Welsh cottage for a fortnight, and it works a treat.

Shudder: that’s the reaction of some of today’s more High Church clergy I spoke to, asking them whether they would ever sign up for a Christian house-swap in the UK. Never! The very concept made them imagine sparse, puritanical dwellings with lino floors, single beds, boring books, and no wine in the cupboard.

I wanted to test my simplistic and perhaps out-of-date theory that High Church clergy go to southern Europe for their summer holidays, to sit in piazzas, drink Martini Rossos, look at frescoes, and nip in to Roman Catholic churches for services, whereas those from the more Evangelical wing prefer to stomp across the Pennines, or take a slow boat up the Kennet and Avon Canal, or stay in a self-catering cottage in Yorkshire and worship at the nearest Anglican church.

Broadly, that seems still to be the picture — and, actually, it’s a charming picture: everyone finding nourishment and refreshment in their chosen holiday destinations. I had chats with a wide variety of clergy, and got a real sense of how treasured their annual summer holidays were, and how deeply missed they would be this summer if they were not allowed, the abroad-goers suffering more acutely than the Britain-stayers.

“Not being able to get away this year is probably the biggest loss of the whole [lockdown] experience,” the Revd Catherine Lomas, Vicar of Irchester with Stanton Cross, says. The annual recharging of batteries in France is an essential pivot of the year for her and her family: “‘I love heat, and this country doesn’t offer that reliably enough.” Does she always go to church, when on holiday? “No. It’s not a holiday for me if I go to church. You never switch off. You’re always noticing. Even when I visit churches abroad, I find myself reading the noticeboards. I can pray on a sun-lounger by a pool just as easily as in a church.”

She sees holiday as a “gift” of rest: a blessing complete in itself. “To force worship would be to deny that gift.” Others I spoke to always go to church on holiday — partly for the spiritual sustenance, and partly for the fun and fascination of seeing how others do it. “My wife says I tolerate sloppy liturgy in Italy in a way I wouldn’t do at home,” Canon Bruce Ruddock, Chaplain of Chichester Cathedral, says. On holidays in Britain, he is fussier about liturgy. “If the noticeboard says ‘Informal worship’, I’ll go off to the next village.”

Once, on holiday in Kent, he turned up at a “Family Service” — tricycles and Lego all over the floor, and children’s nursery-rhyme-style hymnody — but no children had actually turned up. This is what you risk, if you don’t know a place.

You can also chance upon an under-attended gem: “In the Peak District,” the Revd Anthony Buckley, Vicar of St Michael at the North Gate, in Oxford, says, “we went to a tiny parish church, where a retired vicar had put a lot of work into preparing the service and sermon — and there were only four people there. Our family increased the congregation by 100 per cent.”

Do clergy make themselves known to the incumbent, or do they go incognito, like Michelin restaurant critics? They tend to make themselves known over the coffee afterwards. Canon Stephen Ferns, Chaplain to the Bishop of Chichester, was chuffed when “a priest in Naples gave me a quarter of the clergy wafer, as he’d spotted me as a priest”.

In my book, I mention the British phenomenon of repeat holidays. We like going back again and again to the same place. Since 1981, Mr Buckley has been a leader, every summer, at one of the Urban Saints (formerly Crusader) summer camps, near Tunbridge Wells. He used to go on those camps as a child, and his children went on them and are now also members of staff. There is something deeply reassuring to the stability of a nation about these annual repeat holidays. It’s sad that, this year, so many such camps won’t happen, for the first time in many decades. They’ll be “virtual”, which is not the same.

The clergy not-going-abroad syndrome happens partly because clergy don’t have much spare cash for expensive foreign holidays, but mainly because many feel that Britain has quite enough to offer — and who even needs the long journey to go to some sweltering foreign place? Taking Bible and Thermos, they go out for long walks.

One non-stipendiary minister described to me the home-grown excitement of being on a family holiday in a rented cottage in Reeth, in North Yorkshire, two summers ago. There were flash floods. They looked out of the window and saw sheep floating past. They had to be rescued from the roof by helicopter, and were on national television. Again, enough to make a seasoned Italy-goer shudder.

As for receiving communion in RC churches abroad — should you or shouldn’t you? Bernice Martin, whose husband, the Revd Professor David Martin, died last year, told me, “David always insisted on taking communion.” He said, “If they’re going to make any fuss, I’ll argue with them.” But they never did.

 

Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s British Summer Time Begins: The school summer holidays 1930-1980 is reviewed here.

Listen to an interview with Ysenda Maxtone Graham on the Church Times Podcast.

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